The 1692 witch scare: why Salem?
Welcome to part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Salem witch scare of 1692. Here we take a look at Salem before the scare to see what was happening, and why Salem ended up as the site of this tragedy.
Salem was not just any old town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Salem was the site of first settlement for the New England Puritans. When John Winthrop and his famous band of Puritan settlers arrived in 1630, they first sheltered in Salem before heading south to found Boston. (Remember, as we show in Pilgrims v. Puritans: who landed in Plymouth?, those people who landed in 1620 were not Puritans but Separatists.) A small group of unfunded Puritans had left England in 1626 and founded Salem. Therefore it was the first Puritan settlement in New England, and as such had planted the first Reformed Anglican (Congregational) church in the New World.
So Salem had clout. It was literally the mother of all Puritan churches in the New World, and its community was very proud of its standing. The church in Boston became very powerful, but the Salem congregation was always a kind of Queen Mother to it, and the advice of Salem’s ministers and congregation was always important to Boston.
Salem was always a frontier town. It was closer to southern Maine than to Boston, and southern Maine was a battleground from the 1630s on between France, ever-encroaching southward from Canada, and the English settlers in MBC and Plymouth. The English created settlements and trading posts in this area, notably Agawam, as buffer zones against French expansion. The French, who had a good track record of keeping their hands off (Native) American land in Canada, were easily able to enlist Abenakis, Acadias, and Penobscots to fight the English settlers, who clearly needed and took lots of land in New England. So while the French built forts in the north from which to sweep down into New England, their Native American allies (particularly the Abenakis) would raid English settlements in southern Maine and northern MBC, armed with French weapons and given sanctuary in French-controlled land.
Trouble for Salem, with the French, Native Americans, and England itself, began in 1686, just six years before the witch scare. In that year, King James II of England established the Dominion of New England (read more about that here), which took away MBC’s political independence, its self-rule, and its religion. This grossly unfair and unpopular regime was overthrown by the New Englanders in 1689, when they got word that James II had been deposed in favor of William and Mary. But they were not able to get their independence back; MBC would remain a royal colony with a royal governor who was appointed by the king rather than elected by the legislature.
So just three years before the scare, Salem, along with all the MBC, has had its religion, land rights, and governance challenged and not fully restored. But worse was to come–the new king immediately brought his war with France to New England.
King William’s War (1689-97) was fought by English forces in Europe, but the violence came to New England. Because their home nations were at war, the French in Canada launched new attacks through their Native American allies on English settlements. Native American night raids on small Maine villages were terrifying and unsparing. The worst attack was on York, Maine on January 25, 1692; the first accusations of witchcraft in Salem came weeks later.
Salem, again, was close to Maine, and actually received many refugees from the violence, particularly children. Salem was on constant alert for Native American attack, and sent militia to defend Maine itself. Salem’s neighboring towns of Andover, Haverhill, Amesbury, Newbury, and Rowley (now Georgetown) were attacked.
In the midst of this external stress and tension, Salem was also undergoing internal strife. Salem was made up of Salem Village, the original farming settlement, and Salem Town, a newer development of mostly merchants and business people. The old Puritan law of “one village, one church” had been upheld in Salem long after it was clear that Salem Town was large enough, and its people far away enough, to have its own congregation. But this was not just any church splitting. This was, remember, the Mother Church of New England; Salem Village did not want to split its historic church and lose the esteem this gave them. There was resentment in the farming Village of the wealth of the merchant Town; all the Village had was its church, and did not want to lose it. Finally, however, it was forced to release Salem Town from its obligations to First Church in Salem, and in 1689, the same year MBC became a permanent royal colony, Salem’s historic church was split.
So we have in Salem, by 1692, very high tensions over Native American attack, royal governance, and internal economic and religious division. On the eve of the scare, Salem was just waiting for a spark to ignite an explosion of violence. In the next segment, we’ll talk about why witchcraft became that spark.